United States of Wildfire

Country/area: United States

Organisation: NPR, NHPR, WABE

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 10/08/2021

Credit: Nathan Rott, Annie Ropeik, Molly Samuel, Claire Harbage, Arvin Temkar, Elizabeth Frantz, Jennifer Ludden, Lee Smith, Daniel Wood, Connie Hanzhang Jin, Duy Nguyen, Ruth Talbot, Emily Bogle, Alyson Hurt


Reporting by Nathan Rott/NPR, Annie Ropeik/New Hampshire Public Radio and Molly Samuel/WABE

Photography by Claire Harbage/NPR and Arvin Temkar and Elizabeth Frantz for NPR

Visual narrative edited by Jennifer Ludden, with copy editing by Lee Smith

Graphics by Daniel Wood and Connie Hanzhang Jin

Design and development by Connie Hanzhang Jin, Daniel Wood, Duy Nguyen and Ruth Talbot

Produced by Emily Bogle and Alyson Hurt

Project description:

There’s a forgotten history that should serve as a warning — wildfire isn’t unique to the West. Now the warming climate is increasing the risk of major wildfires across America. And more people are moving to fire-prone areas without realizing the danger.

Impact reached:

This project and the accompanying radio piece were picked up across NPR’s member network due to this project’s unique collaboration with WABE Atlanta and New Hampshire Public Radio. As a result, it was widely viewed in the areas that were highlighted in the story, like New Hampshire. Additionally, the story was adapted for the Appalachia Journal, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Techniques/technologies used:

This project is a combination of original drone footage and photography, maps, charts, and reporting. The maps were made using QGIS, GDAL, Adobe Illustrator, and AI2HTML. The chart was made using d3.js and our internal templating tool. This project was built with NPR’s own in-house developed scrolly-telling based interactive template. The template makes it easy to integrate photo, video, interactive elements, and text. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

The map of fire-return intervals – average years between wildfires – was essential to explaining the shocking truth of this story: that much more of the U.S. is more fire-prone than we understand. But the maps were extremely difficult to produce owing to the enormous size and complexity of the raw data. I wrote a blog post about the process, which can be found at https://n.pr/33as3aN. In short, the tremendous size (over 2GB) of the raw data made processing difficult, and downsampling the data essential. Once this was done, selecting a descriptive and user-friendly color palette was also quite a challenge, as we wanted something that was divergent (went from “safe” to “danger”) but was also color-blind friendly. In the end, I believe we produced a map that is revelatory, showing a hidden and worrisome side of the land we inhabit today. 

What can others learn from this project?

This project is a good reminder of the value of both looking at history and trying to localize issues from other regions — you may find something that’s been overlooked or undercovered. Also, as Dan’s blog post about the map-making process reminds us, there’s tremendous value in consulting the experts behind complicated data sets.

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